Chase shake-up at Charlotte probably won't be the last

CONCORD, N.C. -- As Jeff Burton raised a glass of champagne to toast Saturday night's Sprint Cup victory at Lowe's Motor Speedway, he reminded the crowd that the Chase was only halfway over.

"There's a lot that's going to happen between now and then," said the 41-year-old driver, who is seeking his first title. "I mean, I know everybody keeps saying this, everybody wants to give somebody a trophy right now. Just hold on for a little while."

Yes, hold on.

What we've learned five races into NASCAR's 10-race playoff is that no lead is safe. Just ask Kyle Busch, who entered the Chase with a 30-point lead but is 326 back and out of contention after mechanical failures sidelined him in the first three events.

Just ask Carl Edwards, who in the blink of an eye at LMS went from being a serious threat to a long shot, falling to 168 points back in the time it took ignition problems to leave him 33rd.

Just ask points leader Jimmie Johnson, who after the race sounded like he trailed Burton by 69 points instead of leading him by that margin after a sixth-place finish at one of Johnson's favorite tracks.

"Right now I'm pissed about tonight," the two-time defending Cup champion said. "But, you know, tomorrow, Tuesday, whatever it is, [I'll] be ready for Martinsville."

Like Burton, Johnson reminded us that the Chase is far from over. He believes from experience that even Edwards still has a chance.

"Heck, I was [down] more than that after Talladega," he said, recalling the 2006 Chase.

Well, almost. Johnson trailed by 156 points before his unbelievable run of a win and four seconds in five straight races. But he had seven people ahead of him, compared to the three -- Johnson, Burton and Greg Biffle -- now in front of Edwards.

So anything can happen.

"Everybody understands that you can lose a ton of points -- 200 or 300 in a space of a few weeks," Edwards said, trying to remain positive. "We all know that can happen. This thing is far from over."

Burton certainly understands. In '06 he left Charlotte with a 45-point lead over second-place Matt Kenseth and a 146-point advantage over Johnson. By the time Burton reached the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he was in seventh, 247 back.

"There's going to be some things that happen to every team that you can't control," Burton said.

But Johnson is definitely in the driver's seat to become the first three-peat champion since Cale Yarborough (1976-78), despite how uncomfortable Johnson looked sitting between Kurt Busch and Kasey Kahne during the postrace
news conference.

Johnson is heading to a Martinsville track where he had won three straight before Denny Hamlin captured the spring race and where he has won four times since 2004 and has finished no worse than fourth in nine of the past 10 races.

"They've been incredible at Martinsville," Burton said. "I mean, Hendrick in general, between Jeff [Gordon] and Jimmie, they've been ... I mean, give them the clock."

Burton was referring to the grandfather clock given to the winner at the half-mile track in the Virginia mountains. Johnson and Gordon have eight of the past 10.

Johnson also is strong at the four other remaining tracks, particularly Atlanta and Phoenix. But Burton knew coming into the Chase that Johnson was going to be a contender, just as he knew Johnson was favored to win Saturday.

Everybody understands that you can lose a ton of points
-- 200 or 300 in a space of a few weeks. We all know that can happen. This thing is far from over.

-- Carl Edwards

That doesn't mean he or anybody will stop trying.

"We understand that we've got to beat them," Burton said. "But the only way we can beat them is for us to pay attention to what we're doing."

Burton rightfully laughed when it was suggested he's in a better position to win the Chase now than he was in '06 when he had the lead.

"The only reason you wouldn't want the lead is because you're messing yourself up in your head," he said. "If somebody gives us a hundred points a day, I'd take 'em."

No, the Chase isn't over. Johnson's lead isn't as safe as a 3-0 advantage in the World Series or NBA playoffs.

Not one driver has gotten through the entire Chase since it started in 2004 without at least one hiccup. That means Johnson and Burton -- the only Chase drivers with top-10s in each of the first five races -- likely will face some adversity.

As Johnson pointed out, he didn't get back in contention in '06 without a lot of people having problems.

That's why he was so upset with the way he faded on Saturday. He knows the 30 points he lost over the final 25 laps, when he appeared headed to a pass for the lead, could be vital before this is over.

"Took a lot of risks trying to get as many points as I could on [Biffle] and trying to hang with [Burton]," Johnson said. "Damn near threw it away a couple of times."

At least 11 guys trailing him in points were hoping he would. NASCAR's top brass, hoping for a close Chase at a time of the year when the ratings typically slide to the NFL and college football, might wish him some ill fortune as well.

Bottom line, as Burton said with champagne glass in hand: We're only halfway home.

"Anything can happen," he said. "And, by the way, it probably will happen."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.